One Giant Step for Students at JPL Space Academy Graduation

Photos by Wes Woods II / OUTLOOK
La Cañada High School students Kyle Chang, Thomas Vu, Bradley Stroben and Michael Gray of the team Big Boys show off their launcher.

While La Cañada High School junior Snigdha Prakash looks into a career as an aerospace engineer, she learned some valuable life lessons during a two-month Jet Propulsion Laboratory Space Academy.
As part of the team Spaced Out, Prakash, 16, spent two months with other members fusing together physics, science, engineering and business in a STEM program that serves high school students, many from LCHS.
“No matter how much you plan and calculate, it really comes down to what exactly happens at the last minute,” Prakash told an audience of her peers, parents and others at the recent JPL Space Academy graduation ceremony. “Part of engineering is you need to think of quick solutions on the spot. That’s what l loved and learned from the experience.”
Prakash is one of 37 new alumni of the academy who had their graduation ceremony last Saturday in the Von Karman Auditorium at JPL.
The academy, which began in 2012 in collaboration with LCHS, now includes support from the city of LCF as well as the La Cañada Flintridge Educational Foundation, Neilson and Silicon Beach Insurance.
Art Chmielewski, a NASA JPL project manager who began the program in 2013, said the Space Academy evolved from a strictly science and engineering academy to one incorporating business and creating relationships.
“One of the things, for example, I’ve been pounding into my students over the sessions was that if you want to be a successful entrepreneur you have to reach your customers well,” Chmielewski said.
Amy Nespor, a contractor for the JPL Space Academy who is being trained to take over the program, said individual teams now create a business, market it and have stocks — for a mock stock market and portfolio — around the guise of investing in a launcher and lander.
Nespor told the graduating class the objective of the academy was to develop a company, work together as a team, and learn how to be organized and problem solve.
Nate Fulmer, a former LCHS instructor who helped Chmielewski with the program’s curriculum, said the program’s goal was to incorporate a business aspect as well as science and engineering with concepts the kids learn in a physics or math class.
“My hope here is that after we’ve gone through all of this rigmarole and sometimes blood, sweat and tears that go into this project, you walk away with a sense of accomplishment and the kids can say to themselves, ‘I figured it out and made it work.’”
Chmielewski said the program is tailored for juniors and seniors only to limit membership to about 35 people so he can give them personal attention to improve. The program features primarily LCHS youths but also includes some students from high schools in Pasadena, San Gabriel, Crescenta Valley and Irvine.
“We always have about 200 candidates,” Chmielewski said.
He also hires some alumni of the program as “management consultants” where they are matched with youths who are struggling in the program. The consultants share their own experiences.
“Usually you have to simplify the design and start working as a team,” Chmielewski said. “Because one failure is they don’t communicate. They learn this very quickly … somebody/everybody is waiting for somebody else.”
La Cañada Unified School District Governing Board member Dan Jeffries’ son Ean participated in this year’s program — he was on the team Cosmos — and was able get practice speaking in front of people.

Photo by Wes Woods II / OUTLOOK
The JPL Space Academy graduation event honored former students Audrey Chen, Maks Sawoniewicz, Justin Huang, Ethan Cohen, Marcus Chmielewski and Nathaniel Barba.

“He’s always had a great interest in science and math and physics,” Jeffries said of his son, who is 15 and attends LCHS. “In this particular program, he also had a chance to do a lot of public speaking. Every week he had to present on the progress of the project. It was an opportunity for him to discuss in front of other students and faculty how it was progressing and coming along. It was a good opportunity for him to get in front of an audience about a topic he loves.”
Jeffries, who attended the graduation ceremony, said he was impressed by the youths and their projects at the graduation as well as the partnership with JPL.
“They put on a phenomenal program,” Jeffries said.
Chmielewski declared the group Vespa as the “grand winners” for their successful launcher and business practices. LCHS junior Jonah Garland explained the meaning of the name.
“A lot of the NASA space missions were named after gods or mythological creatures, so we looked up the list of Nordic gods and Vespa was god of fire — something technical,” said Garland, 17.
LCHS senior Max Weinberger said the group’s ambitious design using aluminum components and 3-D printed rollers ended up not working and they had to start from scratch.
“You learn pretty quickly that, hey, the most complex design isn’t always the best,” said Weinberger, 18.
For more information on the program, visit

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